At the tender age of just fourteen, the pious Maria (a noteworthy debut from young newcomer Lea van Acken) is already thinking of the life hereafter. Bullied at school due to an unwavering devotion to her faith, she finds it difficult to maintain relationships with classmates – particularly those of the opposite gender – due to an overriding if premature fear of carnal temptation. Maria’s home life is a key factor in all of this; her family are dyed-in-the-wool lambs of the Society of St. Pius XII flock with an unshakeable belief in the traditionalist interpretation and teachings of Catholicism. As such, every single daily decision that Maria makes is to be examined and scrutinised in the eyes of Almighty God – and he’s clearly not one to let even the smallest trespasses things slide. But how far will our heroine go in His name?
Reminiscent – in subject matter and its affinity for disciplined framing, at least – to the middle chapter of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross broaches comparable themes of sacrifice, stoicism and staunch purity, yet fixes its gaze on God’s youngest recruits as opposed to Seidl’s seasoned campaigner. In an extended and immaculately shot opening sequence (just over ten minutes in length), Florian Stetter’s impassioned Father talks his pupils through ‘The Way’. An expulsion of, and constant vigil against modern society’s numerous temptations (including the “satanic rhythms” of gospel, jazz, rock and pop music) is crucial we’re told, the scene ending with a clear sign of things to come – Maria’s rejection of a seemingly harmless biscuit. It’s in prayer and the selfless helping of others that God’s warriors find sustenance – not food.
There are points at which Brüggemann mischievous humour teeters on the edge of the outright farcical (Franziska Weisz, as the tyrannical mother, does perhaps stray into Margaret White territory on occasion). However, any such threats are almost always waylaid by a well-timed cut or a moment of finely-executed symbolism (all clocks featured stop at 3pm). Like her beloved Saviour, Maria’s one misguided wish is that the sins of another be admonished by a personal act of sacrifice – in this case, that her mute four-year-old brother, Johann, will finally speak. And whilst it’s not exactly difficult to chart Stations of the Cross’ trajectory after the first few expositionary chapters, a fitting finale highlights just how fine a balancing act between the ludicrous and the laconic Brüggemann has achieved.
The 68th Edinburgh Film Festival takes place from 18-29 June 2014. For more of our EIFF coverage, follow this link.